Emergency planning and disaster recovery for collections – the bigger picture, 4th December 2015

An SLLG member imparts some learning outcomes from a recent course on disaster management.

Emergency planning and disaster recovery for collections – the bigger picture
Harwell, Polygon, AXA
Scottish Parliament
4th December 2015


This half day course concentrated on managing collection recovery when it has undergone a catastrophe. The course specifically looked in detail about the element already known as good practice in collection care, business continuity and content salvage – the Disaster Plan – and focussed on working at the extreme end of it.

Most collections have some sort of plan in place as contingency for actions when faced with small or self-contained “disasters”. However, a key to every plan is when to acknowledge the point where additional or expert help is required.

The course was taken by three presenters: one of each from collections, buildings and insurance backgrounds. All three have been involved in the ongoing aftermath of the Glasgow School of Art fire, which both highlighted a need for this course and was a useful illustration to hang each of the presentations together.

Planning for deeper considerations
Emma, Director of Harwell, introduced the overall theme of the course: Disaster recovery, no matter how big or small, relies on time being used at its most efficient.

Recovery management is best planned because:

  • Robust planning automatically embeds efficiency
  • Planning makes responses quicker
  • Planned actions are invariably positive
  • Better planning mean actions run in parallel. Removing single or linear decision making is vital when the plan is asked to cope with a catastrophe

To complicate matters, major disasters seem to occur when least expected or prepared for. Building contractors are often working during unsociable hours. Containable incidents are more likely to develop catastrophically when there is no one around.

To compound this, major disasters do not only affect the collection. They are usually building wide. An incident rooted under another department’s jurisdiction can cause a disaster for a collection. Water can run internally and unpredictably in a building’s infrastructure. Fire can take unusual turns and the smoke affect rooms far from the source.

With these complications in mind, Emma highlighted aspects which are often overlooked in disaster planning.

Disaster plans should not assume the people responsible will be immediately able to take charge. Various people must therefore be given delegated responsibility to action decisions and even limited finance privileges to get the plan progressed.

The plan should detail when an emergency is an actual emergency. It should have a shortcut to both contact expert services and alert those who work or are involved in the building to act according to the plan when such a scenario has been discovered.

Any good plan requires full staff engagement and awareness of it. All those working in the building will be affected to a degree in a major incident and should take an investment in being prepared to form a capable support structure.

When developing a plan at the catastrophe level of a situation there are a number of subtle aspects to consider:

  • Who is actually a stakeholder in the plan? Collections will only be a piece of the whole when faced with a catastrophe. Users of the collections, other employees, those with financial investments in the collections and everyone else with a purpose must be included
  • Is there a bias of priorities in the plan? Workplace politics and inter-department conflicts can add bias in planning. These need carefully untangled to ensure everyone is working in the same direction
  • Is there known personal conflicts which would hinder working relationships in a plan? Teamwork is critical at the level of recovery.
  • Can the teams do the work? A good example is if a team is too short without a step to attach protective sheeting on high shelves, could taller people be introduced to that team?
  • Don’t forget Health & Safety to be written into a plan. People are always more important
  • Is there a system in place to ensure the teams’ morale is maintained? Often the work will be difficult and tiring so having someone regularly providing hot drinks and food can be crucial

The plan can even be used to control the environment to mitigate disasters in the first place. Are people regularly monitoring their workspace? Does the plan include service and equipment check details?

Plan content
Emma explained one of the most common hindrances in a disaster plan is content overload.

With so much to consider in planning for disaster recovery it is not surprising, but too much information is a danger to that one thing a plan should be: a tool to make initial decisions correctly and quickly under pressure.

Disaster plans which require looking through an index, or flicking past introductory passages, can cost time and cause confusion and this is not a good thing.

Remember what was said at the beginning: Disasters tend to occur when least expected, often when those with responsibility are not able to take charge right away.

A disaster plan should strive to be no more than 1 page.

But then, disasters are complex; major incidents involve large scale planning. So Emma proposes the following solution:

  • Create a separate disaster plan document for each disaster possibility
  • Give a document corresponding to each individual with just their responsibility

Plan priorities
Emma explained that most people making plans are keen to confirm collection priorities. However, the way priorities are worked out beforehand can be problematic when encountering a major disaster.

Often the priorities can change when faced with triaging a vast collection. It is important the plan can adapt pragmatically to the situation:

  • Take into account deterioration rates and costs to restore materials
  • Adjust plans to the time and effort in evacuating materials. Which do not consume the most front line resources at the expense of triaging the materials once evacuated?

Consider the extent of the salvage operation and again adjust the plan:

  • 20 books placed in crates in 3 minutes vs. carefully bandaging, labelling and then crating 20 books for 30 minutes
  • 20 Books triaged over 2 tables vs. 20 files of loose documents requiring 20 tables

In summary – be picky with the priorities once you’ve assessed the situation.

Emma gave a short list of ‘must-haves’ for any disaster equipment box:

  • Polythene sheeting
  • Absorbents of various sizes
  • Pre-made labels

Emma went a little further with suggesting that there could be an order form ready to submit for personal equipment (jacket and shoe sizes).

Above all, the plan and equipment need to match one another and staff well practiced in using both.

What else?
With a large scale recovery it is vital to gain support. To do this, do not be afraid to broadcast the situation.

  • Be aware of where the expert help is. Waiting until a disaster before sourcing professional conservation services is a bad idea
  • Maintain good links with other collection managers nearby. Often reciprocal agreements can mean a sharing of resources
  • Use social media. An established social media presence can be used to inform and interact with interested parties easily and can be vital in gaining advice and perhaps even more support

Case studies
Finally Emma provided some of her experiences with a couple of case study examples.

  • A law firm sat with saturated documents in their store for 7 weeks while tendering out for a conservation contract. By the time they opted for a company the documents were irretrievable
  • Talking to a public document collections manager after a disaster, they judged the success of their recovery as near 50:50 sticking to the disaster plan and good team work in adjusting to the circumstances
  • A fine art collection based their priorities on valuations of the works. It took 6 firemen 10 minutes to decide the highest valued painting was too awkward to remove, while the estimated cost of the artwork being destroyed elsewhere overtook the value of that single painting
  • A successful evacuation of a collection included every detail and decision logged by a team member. The result was the insurance company paid out full compensation

Emma reiterated to never underestimate the time, effort and space required in any disaster recovery and the advantage in factoring in support at every point.

Building in disaster planning
Simon, Director of Polygon, gave a brief talk on why considering the building itself is vital as part of disaster planning.

The best place to re-house a collection after a disaster is where it came from. It fits. Therefore it is in everyone’s interest to get the building back to standard as soon as possible.

There is another reason why attention to the building is a must. A catastrophe will almost certainly mean restricted access to part if not all the building. All the while the collections are inside, potentially degrading.

Gaining access will be the job of the emergency services. Being taken seriously by the emergency services is a big advantage. The services want to work with you and speed up the process of giving you access. Provide the services with all the information possible about the building:

  • Floor plans and layout
  • Materials used in the structure
  • Where fire extinguishers and power sockets are
  • Where priorities in the collection are located

If you have plans, good personal safety equipment and are willing to work with the emergency services then access to the collections can be improved.

Finally, a means of securing the building is a high priority:  Personal valuables in desks, expensive company equipment, parts of the collection all need secured if yet to be retrieved.

Insurance – what is it good for?
James, underwriter at AXA ART, was the last to speak.

The role of the insurer is a main part of preparing a plan for any disaster. The insurer’s number should be right up there on the disaster plan. Quickly getting settlement of an insurance claim after a catastrophic incident is crucial in enabling the expert services to begin work.

When the Glasgow School of Art went on fire, within a day 75% of their insurance policy was settled.

James gave some advice about not only choosing the correct insurer and insurance, but also how to gain better terms.

Let insurance influence good disaster planning by letting it answer some of the questions the insurer will want answered:

  • What is the precise value of the collection?
  • How is the disaster plan written up?
  • Who is involved in ‘signing off’ on the disaster plan?
  • How is the disaster plan challenged and improved?
  • What is being done to assess the risk to the collection?
  • What precautions to mitigate loss are in place?
  • What do you want to happen to the collection after a disaster?

Taking an insurer confidently through those aspects will likely gain a collection more favourable policy terms.

It is equally important to get the correct insurance. James pointed out a specialist insurer does not mean “more expensive” – it means it is more tailored to get the correct “basis of settlement”. That is, what will trigger the settlement:

  • Compensation
  • Replacement
  • Reinstatement
  • Conservation

If the collection is destroyed in a fire and the basis of settlement is only for conservation – the policy will not trigger because there is nothing to conserve.

Getting advice and interviewing insurers is recommended. Don’t be afraid to question the insurer’s experience with similar collections, or what an underwriter’s understanding of a type of collection is.

This course was also a bit of a sales pitch, but the practical information was valuable as both a refresher to attendees and for genuinely practical insights on larger scale thinking when support, insurance and pre-planning will contribute hugely to successful recovery of collections.

Further Reading:
SLLG members might like to read the 7 principles of good disaster preparation in “Disaster planning”, Issue 49 (Mar.) 2013, by the same author.


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